Have you ever wondered how the Louisville Slugger baseball bat got its name? It is the nickname of famous 19th-century hitter and Louisville native Pete Browning. Browning played for the Louisville Eclipse and Colonels baseball clubs and is considered one of his day’s best batters. He is also known for beginning the practice of players having custom made bats.
Browning was born in 1861 as the youngest of eight children. When his father was killed in a cyclone when he was 13, Browning cared for his mother and resided in the family home until he died. He began his baseball career playing for the semipro Louisville Eclipse starting in 1877. In 1882 Browning was with the Eclipse when they joined the newly formed American Association, the first league to rival the National League. He would continue with the team until 1889, when he joined the Cleveland Infants in 1890. Browning would play for several teams during the 1890s, including the Pittsburg Pirates (1891), Cincinnati Reds (1891–92), Louisville Colonels (1892–93), St Louis Browns (1893), and the Brooklyn Grooms (1893–94). His last Major League Baseball game was with the Grooms in 1894. His final professional game was in 1896 with the Western League’s Columbus Buckeyes.
Browning distinguished himself as a hitter, consistently being in the top three hitters in the league for his first seven years, and only dropped into the top six twice. His accomplishments are even more impressive when one considers he suffered all his life from mastoiditis, which left him nearly deaf. His hearing problem led him to difficulty playing in the outfield, as he could not hear teammates or opponents. While he underwent several surgeries, the affliction would cause him difficulty all of his life, eventually leading to a drinking problem. Taking these obstacles into consideration, Browning remained a determined and well-loved player.
In 1884 Hillerich & Bradsbury presented Browning with his first custom made bat. He hit three runs with the bat in his first game and began the tradition of batters ordering custom bats. Browning was the first to purchase a custom bat from the company, and they later named the Louisville Sluggers to thank him for his patronage and capitalize on his fame.
Browning is also notable for being involved in players’ first labor strike while he was in Louisville. The event would cause him to join the Players League, playing for the Cleveland Infants. The league’s dispute putting excessive fines on the players resulted in the players refusing to play, though they would return to the next game. The conflict with the owner would lead to his leaving Louisville in 1889.
Browning’s drinking problem, which he stated as a way to relieve the pain of his medical condition, began to have negative results on his professional career. In 1889 he was suspended for two months for coming to the game drunk. After his retirement, he was a popular Louisville figure until he was committed to an insane asylum in 1905. He died in September of that year and is buried at Cave Hill Cemetery.
Browning’s legacy can be seen anytime one watches a Major League Baseball game. The name Louisville Slugger is etched in the vast majority of the bats that players use, many of them custom made. In 1984 a new marker was made for his grave and listed his baseball achievements. A restaurant and brewery, Browning’s Restaurant & Brewery, was located at Slugger Field in Louisville. It has recently been replaced by Against the Grain Brewery. Given all of his achievements, he has not yet been given his spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Indeed it is an oversight that will be corrected in the near future.